PRIMORDIA • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“Of all the fairy stories we tell our children,” said Arkady, “The Tale of the Greater Good is by far the most wicked.”

“You sound like the fifth Karamazov brother.”

Outside, the cold reduced everything to elemental purity. Traces of urine on the snow glittered like citrine quartz.

Arkady poured a little vodka into my glass of mors. I’m no drinker but “if you speak to me like that,” he said, “then you must sit at the grownups’ table.”

He’d shrunk in his own skin like a spring bear but he was still a big man. His laugh shook the floorboards, a deep rumbling cough the chaser.

And he’d managed, even here, to maintain the elevated sensibilities of a Gorokhovaya Street apartment. The room smelled of honey and ginger but not of regret. The rough-sawn shelves had been filled with first editions. The urbane country gentleman, with his adoring dog to share his solitude.

This would be worst for her.

I tried to control my anger. It was horrible to me that Arkady should suffer yet monstrous he’d escaped accountability — that someone who’d savaged the rights of so many could choose the time and place and manner of his own end.

“Tolstoy misspoke,” I said. “Intellectuals are all alike. With a hard nut of self-delusion at their core. That touching faith in Mother Russia’s sacred destiny, no matter what’s required to achieve it. But the innocent vanities of small harmless people enraged them.”

“The Americans are equally sentimental,” said Arkady, “but their writers are amateurs.”

He got up to bring some hot thick smoky tea.

“I forgot what happens when spirits go to your head. Have another pryanik.”

Alcohol loosens too much in me.

“Why weren’t you immune to all that poison?”

“Delusion fuels the passions of policemen too,” Arkady said.

He refilled his own glass with icy clear liquid fire.

“Don’t misunderstand; it is not a mitigation. The stain cannot be diminished. Free will has its cost.”

Lisichka shifted anxiously at Arkady’s feet. She hated this sort of talk. He bent to rub her ears.

“It is one of the great ironies. Every liberator thinks he carries a gentler choke collar. But never mind. It’s not important now.”

“It was important to them — those people broken and killed — and their children and their mothers and fathers, without even a grave to cry over sometimes — they deserve more than your elegant allusions.”

His eyes sparked — the same feral flash prisoners saw when he conducted interrogations in his beautiful cultured voice. Then he damped down the fire.

“Yes,” he said, “that is the purpose of philosophy. To distract us from truth.”

He opened another bottle of Siwucha and tilted it at me, a mock toast. “One more heresy. Keep this secret too.”

***

Arkady’d been clever to make me drink. I woke long past noon out of a dreamless sleep.

He was still in his chair, slumped over. Lisichka pressed herself hard against his legs and growled at me.

“Go out,” I said. “You know why I came.” I opened the door so she could squeeze through.

I steeled myself. Despite everything this would never have been my choice.

In the moment of permutation, every muscle in my body contracted and then released. The spectrum shifted and my blood surged in an exultation of power.

I bent over Arkady, scenting his familiar smell beneath the reek of alcohol and sickness, and I almost broke my promise. Then — in one quick snap I finished it.

The change back is always a sort of surrender and diminution and I had to fight, now, not to give voice to everything I felt. I rubbed my mouth clean before letting Lisichka in and set out food for both of us — smoked meat and trout — and I finished off the pryaniki.

We curled up together to sleep.

***

Arkady’d packed the sled with everything he wanted me to have, and provisions to last us through. It was heavy but Lisichka was big and strong and I’d be running alongside her where I could. Better not to be slowed by the need to hunt.

“Don’t look back,” I told her. As I fastened the harness I saw it in her eyes, the remembered pleasure of willing service to the one you love. But she was hurt and angry too and we had no time for grief.

The crust was well-frozen and the sled’s runners had been waxed till the wood had the feel of silk. We’d leave no tracks, heading silently for home.

Behind us, Arkady’s cabin ignited; a pillar of fire against the moonless sky.

***

Evil is everywhere but life is stronger. It can’t be stopped.

Mushrooms are growing now inside the reactors and birds nest throughout the Sarcophagus.  Their babies are odd hatchlings but they still learn how to fly.

The water is cold again, with a pleasurable bite on the tongue.

Even in the Red Forest, death is giving up its hold. A strange new beauty is visible. The beginning of time must have looked like this — these colors; secret constellations beneath the black dirt. Our eyes were fashioned to see it.

Their clever science can’t figure it out — why the old women who refused to leave Pripyat are so healthy and strong. It goes against everything they know.

We know better. The Creator’s promise is fulfilled, and to us, His original children. After the apocalypse, paradise.

Poachers try to sneak in all the time.

We welcome them.

I’d told Lisichka. We have the best hunting here.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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Rate this story:
 average 2.6 stars • 47 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Uriel Harper

    One cannot deny the crafty writing here. Your command of the narrative is quite impressive, although I did have some difficulty following it all the way through. I felt like there was some important information missing in this piece and some more background and development of the characters would have made this more effective. As is, the dialogue reads a little labor intensive and stiff, and it felt more like a lecturing than actual conversation. Still, the writing is, for the most part, crisp and the setting (though a bit lacking) is still attractive. Three stars from me!

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I appreciate your response here very much, Uriel. You're right--the characters aren't having a conversation. Arkady is indulging himself in an elegiac farewell and infuriating the MC, who couldn't help being lured into responding in the same tone.
  • Paul A. Freeman

    This was a hard slog for me, I’m afraid. Most of what Uriel says, I’m in full agreement with.

  • Trollopian

    Artfully written, but at least for this reader, it requires too much….work. In fact, even after putting in the work, I’m not sure that I get it. To me, “flash” is defined by not just a low word count but by an economical and efficient style. Just my view, and others’ are equally valid.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I feel like whoever decided to rename "short short stories" as "flash" did a real disservice. As reader and writer I think 1000 words can hold a world, or a universe...and conversely I'm unwilling to call the nano-forms i.e. less than, say, 500 words, complete stories. As you say, individual views vary and the reader is the judge of his/her own satisfaction.
  • The categories for this story includes werewolves. If that is in fact what this story is, a werewolf story. Then we need more clues in the narrative. The transformation makes more sense before the “snap.” However, this isn’t like any werewolf story I have read before. The running beside the sled makes sense with that information as well. If it were not for the category tag, this story would be completely confusing to me. The last section seems like a long list of circular aphorisms.

    Side note: Is “I’d told Lisichka.” a typo?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Re typo: no.
    • Joseph Kaufman
      I took the final line as meaning the narrator had told his comrade a while ago that they had the best hunting. Otherwise he would be telling Lisichka currently. Subtle difference. But it indicates the narrator has seen this all coming for some time as the nuclear disaster resolves itself with...interesting effects. That's my take, anyway.
      • I guess, being two sentences threw me a bit.
        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
          I felt that expressing it this way was more emphatic--an emphasis of what had been told to Lisichka before. As one sentence I thought it lost power.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        Joe: "Her" comrade...
        • Joseph Kaufman
          Heh, I had no idea!
  • In the hands of an ordinary writer such as myself this would have been a rather ordinary story told in an ordinary way. I greatly admire the talent shown here, the writing style, as far as I know, is unique to this author, at least at EDF. I can overlook any ambiguities encountered, which are overshadowed, and rendered mute, by the writing style.

    *****

  • S Conroy

    Loved the unmistakable Sarah Crysal Akthar prose, including dialogue you can almost hear and characters who could walk right off the page and do their own thing.
    I’m still trying to piece together the story. Things I haven’t figured out:
    Are the first and second parts set in two different times and/or places?
    The second is obviously Chernobyl, but the conversation in the first seemed to refer to the Gulags and I wondered if the former policeman is living somewhere in Russia. Also at the end the dog and narrator flee and set off on a long journey.
    Why is it worse for the dog? Perhaps if it all actually does take place in Chernobyl, dogs react worse to radiation??
    Something about the closeness of the 2 makes me think she is his daughter, or close relative, but she kills like a professional and also claims it is not her choice. Now, writing, I wonder if she is his protegé. In that excellent cold-war serial “the Americans”, the head of operations is also called Arkady. Is this a parallel world where Elisabeth is turned and now on a mission to assassinate her former colleague at the behest of the CIA?
    * Back now, after reading the comments. Werewolf? Back to the drawing board for this detective…

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "Arkady" which as a common Russian name has the fortuitous (in the context of this story) meaning of "Arcadia"...any parallels to other Arkadys is merely coincidental.
      • S Conroy
        Chernobyl, mutations, werewolves... Am I getting warmer?
        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
          Think more "Paradise Regained" for creatures whose habitat and range in the modern world has been severely curtailed. One species' tragedy can be another's boon...
          • S Conroy
            I got that in part (and, figure, now, your arcadia is not just the utopian ideal of Russian communism, but also this 'ideal' paradise). A few months ago I read a really interesting article on Chernobyl and the flora and species who've found new homes.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            Yes, I read that too and saw a documentary, and I was particularly struck that the Exclusion Zone is now the biggest wildlife refuge in Europe. Got me thinking...
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            I saw this as a sort of "My Dinner with Andre Meets The Wolfman," with the role of Arkady played by the lovechild of Yul Brynner and Walter Matthau... ...except that the ability to transform isn't a curse but the trait of an elusive species now enjoying a rebound.
          • S Conroy
            Aaahh... Thanks. Arkady will have been very attractive as a young man, at least the Yul Brynner part of him.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            As for Lisichka: She is a single-natured creature (as opposed to the dual nature of Arkady and the MC) and loves him with a pure devotion untempered by comprehension of the evil he has done. It's painfully confusing for her that the MC kills him (which she's told about and also can sense/smell). She'll miss him with a pure grief.
          • S Conroy
            So "this would be worst for her". Got it at last.
  • Jeanette

    Great story

  • For one, I enjoy the research if needed, and for most of Sarah’s work I have read in the last couple of years, I am thankful for Google. For all that it is the strength of her writing and her commitment to it is why I am such a fan.
    This story came alive for me from the start, though I admit I am a pet of Russian History, but it was the fictional description of the new Rripyat that reminded me of her talents as a storyteller.

  • Personally I prefer your stories set in shtetls or imaginary fairy kingdoms, not among Russian snows and clichés. Chernobyl is too personal and serious for me for a werewolf spin-off. Sentences like “old women who refused to leave Pripyat are so healthy and strong” make me cringe because it is a lie. They are healthy in comparison with old women who were cut of the land and sent to cities (where radiation is not that negligible either). Anyway, they are all dying out. Besides, it is known that sicknesses caused by radiation often develop slower in elderly people. A side note: Siwucha cannot be crystal clear by definition. No Russian or Bielorussian or Ukrainian speaking individual in his right mind would ever call a crystal clear vodka Siwucha (from siwyi — “greyish”, which is “muddy” in this context). Siwucha is the worst in quality kind of self-made vodka, the incompletely rectified kind.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Not being a drinker--or a native East European--I do admit to using the internet for research and found Polish Siwucha--upper-case brand name rather than the generic term--on a top ten list of the world's best vodkas. The list of course is subjective. But you're right about the color. As I noted in a response above, the Exclusion Zone is now the largest wildlife refuge in Europe. Chernobyl is a complex issue. The world will pay for many lifetimes for the stupidity of one generation. But I don't believe anything is off-limits for fictional exploration. And I do believe every reader has an absolute right to his or her truthful reaction to anything a writer presents.
  • Carl Steiger

    I’ve been away from the internet for a week, but noticed an Akhtar story here and made sure to read it. Now I’m going to make sure to read it again ASAP. As others have noted, Sarah makes the reader work, but I find find it worth the effort.

  • Jeffrey Yorio

    The twist is well hidden and good use of long/short sentences. Enjoyable, especially the line…”Evil is everywhere, but life is stronger. It can’t be stopped.”

  • No doubt the writing here is beyond competent, and this author has always shown talent. However, I found this story very difficult to follow. I read it twice and still feel like I’m completely missing it. The first “part” of the story is complete gibberish to me. I have no clue what’s going on or what they’re talking about. It is written rather well, but again, I’ve got no clue what’s going on here.

    Personally, if I have to work at understanding even the smallest parts of a story, it’s not a good story. Not for me anyway. YMMV. Two stars, only for the talented writing.